Mahābhārata – Episode 32 – Naḻopākhyāna: Naḻa and Damayantī reunite

This article is part 32 of 112 in the series Mahābhārata

Keśinī met Bāhuka and asked him when they had started for Vidarbha, how long they had travelled and what the purpose of their visit was. He told her that they had started their journey the previous evening and come to attend the second svayamvara of Damayantī.

Keśinī – Who is the other person who has accompanied you on the trip? How do you know him and what is he here for? What is your occupation?

Bāhuka – His name is Vāṛṣṇeya; he was the charioteer of Naḻa in the past and now works for Ṛtuparṇa. I have learned ashvahrdaya and am a good cook. Thus, the king Ṛtuparṇa has appointment me as a the superintendent of the stables and kitchen.

Keśinī – Does Vāṛṣṇeya know where Naḻa currently is? Has he ever spoken to you about him?

Bāhuka – From what I know, king Naḻa left behind his two children here, at Vidarbha and went away when he was tormented by a storm of difficulties. No one else knows his whereabouts. He seems to be hiding from us all.

Keśinī – We know that a Brāhmaṇa saw you in Aydodhya and said ‘Hey gambler! You tore off a half of my garment and went away, leaving me, a girl fallen with you, behind. Where are you gone?’ What was your answer when he said this to you? Our king’s daughter, Damayantī would like to hear your answer.

Naḻa was greatly disturbed when he heard these words. He had tears in his eyes. He controlled himself and stammered – “Women of noble birth take care of themselves even when they are faced with difficulties. Even when they are separated from their husbands, they don’t lose their hearts and don’t get annoyed with their husbands. Their good nature protects them like an armour at all times. Naḻa went to capture the birds with the hope that they would serve as a means of his family’s livelihood. It is not his fault that they flew away with the garment. His intentions were good and Damayantī should not get angry with her husband. Her husband has lost all his kingdom and wealth … irrespective of her husband’s appreciation or rejection of her. …” he was overcome with emotion, mid-sentence. He burst into tears and started weeping aloud. Keśinī rushed to Damayantī and reported to her everything that had transpired.

Damayantī’s suspicion and sorrow intensified. She said “Keśinī, we will need to test him a little more. Can you please keep an eye on him and let me know his routine? Even if he begs for it, please do not offer him either fire or water. Let us wait and watch his reaction! Let me know if you see something strange or peculiar!” She went, observed Bāhuka for sometime and reported to Damayantī – “Revered lady, he seems to be good in character. I have never seen or heard of such a person before. He does not put his head down when he walks around. When he approached a low doorway, it grows bigger on its own to let him pass. Narrow ones expand at his arrival. He was given empty vessels in the kitchen. Even as he saw them, they got filled up with water. As he held some dry grass in his hand and twisted it, it caught fire. Another surprising thing is that even fire does not seem to burn him. Pots that he uses for watering plants get refilled on their own. There is an unbroken stream of water flowing out of his pots. What is more astonishing is that the flowers that get crushed and trampled by him do not lose their colour or fragrance. I observed these magical characteristics and rushed to inform you of them!”

Damayantī sent her children with Keśinī to Bāhuka. He came running towards the children, hugged them and burst into tears. He hugged them tight and sat them on his lap. He suddenly got up and spoke to Keśinī – “Dear one! These look like my own children. Thus, I was overcome with sorrow as soon as I saw them. People might mistake you if you keep coming here again and again. I am an outsider here, a guest. Please go away! Salutations to you!”

Damayantī sent a message to her mother – “I performed several tests on Bāhuka to ascertain his real identity. I am more or less sure that he is Naḻa, except for his strange demeanour. Thus, call him over here or, let me go see him”. Damayantī’s mother informed her husband, the king Bhīmarāja. Both of them consented and had Bāhuka come to see Damayantī. Looking at him, Damayantī was overcome with intense emotion. She was wearing saffron garments and her hair unkempt. She addressed Bāhuka – “Have you ever seen a person who left his wife behind in the forest as she slept out of fatigue? He is of noble character. Who other than Naḻa can do such a thing? Where have I erred to be treated in such a manner by my husband? I chose Naḻa when the deities had come down to win my hand in marriage. How could he leave behind his wife, a mother of two, who he had lawfully married and was untied with him through the words of divine swans. Where is he gone now?” Even as she spoke these words, tears rolled down her cheek.

Naḻa too started crying and said “I never had the intention of losing my kingdom or leaving you behind. Kali is the reason behind all this. He was within me and was burning inside me because of your curse. The evil one left me due to my own good deeds. I came here only after he left me. Oh beautiful one! It looks like this is the end of all our difficulties. I came here just for you. How would you marry someone else after having lost your beloved husband? Ṛtuparṇa heard that you were willing to marry a second time and your svayamvara was arranged for. He came here for the same reason and I accompanied him”. Listening to these words, Damayantī started trembling and with folded hands, said “Revered king! Please don’t suspect my intentions! Did I not choose you over the devatas? Brāhmaṇas went around singing the song that I had asked them to, only to trace your whereabouts. When Parnada saw you, you gave him an appropriate reply, which he told me about. It was then that I decided to make sure you come to see me and I came up with this plan. Only you can drive horses for such long distances (a hundred yojanas) in a day’s time. No one else has this skill. Here! I promise, with my hands on your feet, I have never thought of anyone else! The Sun, Moon and the Wind are the witnesses to this. If they see any fault with me, they may take my life away at this moment!”

Immediately, an incorporeal voice was heard, which supported her statement. There was a floral shower with the resounding of celestial drums. A cool breeze blew over them. Taking stock of these omens, Naḻa embraced Damayantī. He wore the garments given to him by Nāgarāja and thought of the king of serpents and immediately got back his original form. Damayantī too rejoiced and screamed with excitement looking at her husband gain back his handsome features. Though his body was dirty, she held his head in her bosom and let us sighs of fulfilment. Bhīmarāja got to know of this through his wife. He said “Let the king Naḻa have his bath and relax with his wife. I shall see him tomorrow morning!” Thus, after three years of separation, Naḻa got reunited with his wife in the fourth year. Damayantī too was thrilled to be back with her husband and was like a paddy field with partially grown crops being fed with fresh water.


The next morning, the son-in-law met the father-in-law. They exchanged greetings and salutations. Damayantī bowed down to her father in the company of her husband. He lifted her up and consoled her in a befitting manner. The citizens of the land knew no bounds to their happiness. Every street and every door was decorated. Every temple performed a grand worship of its deity.

Ṛtuparṇa understood that it was Naḻa who was in the disguise of charioteer, Bāhuka, for so long. He was glad to know that Naḻa had reunited with his wife. He thanked Naḻa and said “O revered king, kindly pardon me if I have offended you either consciously or unconsciously when you stayed incognito at my place for so long.” Naḻa said – “I was never wronged by you, dear king! Even if there was anything, I wouldn’t be angry with you. All that can be forgiven. You have been my friend for long. Hereafter, our relationship will only intensify. Naḻa said that he would preach him Ashvavidya if he wanted, as a return of favour.” Ṛtuparṇa consented and learned the art from him. He returned to his kingdom with a different charioteer.

Naḻa stayed in Kunḍinapura for a month after Ṛtuparṇa left for his country. He left for his kingdom of Nishada with a small retinue after bidding farewell to Bhīmarāja. He met Puṣkara there and invited him to a game of dice. Naḻa said “I have earned a lot of wealth now. I shall pawn all my wealth along with Damayantī in this game. I challenged you to pledge your kingdom in return. We shall also pledge our lives on this game. If you would not like to gamble, come, fight a battle with me! I have inherited this kingdom from my ancestors and I am not willing to give it up!” Puṣkara let out a laughter of ridicule and said “You have fortunately got some money that you can pledge in the game. Damayantī’s difficulties have passed too. She can serve me hereafter, just as apsaras serve Indra! I constantly thought of her, all these years!” Listening to his taunts, Naḻa was enraged and felt like cutting his head into pieces right then. His eyes, red with anger, Naḻa said “Why do you speak now? Win over me, first of all and then speak!”

The gamble started. Puṣkara lost all his wealth, kingdom and his life to Naḻa in the very first game. Naḻa said with pride –“this entire kingdom is now mine and is free of difficulties! You will never get to see Damayantī! Your associates and you are her slaves now. You had won in the past due to the influence of Kali but you don’t seem to be aware of that! I will not blame you for others’ mistake. You may live happily. Puṣkara! I consider you as my brother, I hope you never give up your brotherly affection for me! I too shall have great regard for you!” Naḻa consoled Puṣkara, who with folded hands said “May your glory be uneclipsed! May you live for a thousand years without difficulties. You have given me life!” With these words, Puṣkara left for his hometown.

The town rejoiced and there was peace all over. There was celebration around the city. Naḻa lived in the city with his wife and children just as Indra lives in the heavens.

Bṛhadaśva narrated the story to Yudhiṣṭira and said “O king! Naḻa was subject to such great sorrow along with his wife, as he indulged in gambling. He also got separated from his wife and experienced tremendous pain, all alone. Finally, he got reunited with his family and lead a happy life. You have your brothers and your wife Kṛṣṇā with you. You are leading a comfortable life, here in the forest and are spending time contemplating and discussing about dharma. Why do you need to complain? You need not worry about being called to gamble once again. I know the art of Akṣahṛdaya, I’ll teach you the art!” Dharmarāja happily accepted the offer and learned the art of Akṣahṛdaya.

To be continued…

This is an English translation of Prof. A R Krishna Shastri’s Kannada classic Vacanabhārata by Arjun Bharadwaj and Hari Ravikumar published in a serialized form. Thanks to Śatāvadhāni Dr. R Ganesh for his review and astute feedback.



Prof. A R Krishna Sastri was a journalist, scholar, polyglot, and a pioneer of the modern Kannada renaissance, who founded the literary journal Prabuddha Karnāṭaka. His Vacana-bhārata and Kathāmṛta are classics of Kannada literature while his Saṃskṛta-nāṭaka and Bankimacandra are of unrivalled scholarship.



Arjun is a writer, translator, engineer, and enjoys composing poems. He is well-versed in Sanskrit, Kannada, English, Greek, and German languages. His research interests lie in comparative aesthetics of classical Greek and Sanskrit literature. He has deep interest in the theatre arts and music. Arjun has (co-) translated the works of AR Krishna Shastri, DV Gundappa, Dr. SL Bhyrappa, Dr. SR Ramaswamy and Shatavadhani Dr. R Ganesh


Hari is a writer, translator, editor, violinist, and designer with a deep interest in philosophy, education pedagogy design, literature, and films. He has (co-)written/translated and (co-)edited 35+ books, mostly related to Indian culture. He serves on the advisory board of a few educational institutions.

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